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Justin Elliott: Cuomo Reverses Email Purge Policy

Following outcry, aides to the New York governor announced that emails will no longer be automatically deleted after ninety days.

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Image from Flickr user Diana Robinson.

By Justin Elliott
By arrangement with ProPublica

The emails of New York officials will no longer be automatically deleted after ninety days, aides to Governor Andrew Cuomo announced last week in response to political pressure over the purge policy.

It’s been a slow burn leading to the policy shift. The purge policy was first reported by the Albany Times Union back in mid–2013, but didn’t stir much protest until more recently, following coverage by ProPublica and Capital New York.

Good government groups welcomed the move in an open letter; rare praise for Cuomo, whose administration has generally been marked by secrecy.

At a public meeting Friday, aides to the governor said they had reviewed the policies of other states and, going forward, any email deletion would be manual. That means more communications should be retained and be accessible in response to public records requests or in the case of investigations of wrongdoing.

Good government groups welcomed the move, writing in an open letter that it “shows the power the governor has to lead by example to increase transparency”—rare praise for Cuomo, whose administration has generally been marked by secrecy.

Since the purge policy was in effect for about two years in some state agencies, it’s probable some public records have been lost.

“The purged emails are not coming back,” said John Kaehny, head of the pro-transparency group Reinvent Albany, in an email. “There are no Freedom of Information Law or archive ‘police’ to ensure that email records are actually being saved.”

The deletion of emails and the use of private accounts has become a recurring issue for politicians across the country, from Hillary Clinton to Chris Christie.

Kaehny also noted that government officials sometimes use their non-government emails for work-related correspondence, another way to avoid public disclosure. We’ve previously reported on aides to Cuomo using private email accounts to conduct public business.

The deletion of emails and the use of private accounts has become a recurring issue for politicians across the country, from Hillary Clinton’s controversial use of her own email server when she was secretary of state to aides to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie using private accounts to communicate in what became the Bridgegate scandal.

Earlier this month, the issue emerged in Kansas, where the Wichita Eagle reported that Governor Sam Brownback uses a private account, potentially putting his communications outside the bounds of the state’s freedom of information law.

Justin Elliott is a ProPublica reporter covering politics and government accountability. Previously, he was a reporter at Salon.com and TPMmuckraker and news editor at Talking Points Memo.

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